When the Washington Nationals were in the midst of their sluggish 19-31 start to the 2019 season, two glaring issues persisted.
The bullpen was bad, historically bad, and that got the most attention. But the other problem was the lineup, which often failed to provide run support for its starting pitchers and came up short when the bullpen blew the leads it was able to provide.
Washington entered September within shouting distance of the NL East lead (5.5 games) and a comfortable 3.5 games ahead of the Chicago Cubs for the top Wild Card spot. And yet with a daunting schedule ahead that included 24 games against teams in playoff contention, the Nationals couldn’t afford to take their foot off the gas pedal.
The team has gone 7-10 since, and the demons that haunted it for the majority of the first two months of the season have returned.
The Nats’ bullpen has accrued a 5.47 ERA and -0.2 fWAR in September, both of which rank among the five worst teams in the majors. Meanwhile on offense, Washington’s bats have been held to two runs or fewer six times. That’s the most such games the Nats have had in any month this season other than May, when they did it 10 times en route to a 12-17 record.
Although the bullpen only has one blown save, Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland, Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey and Javy Guerra have all struggled to keep close games in reach as middle-to-late-inning relievers. Adam Eaton (.579 OPS in September) and Trea Turner (.714) have been unable to set the table ahead of Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.
Those factors, combined with the rotation’s sudden inability to go deep into games—only Anibal Sanchez has completed seven innings in a start this month—have left Washington nine games back of the Atlanta Braves in the division and just a game and a half up on the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers for the Wild Card entering play Thursday.
Even if the Nationals do manage to hold onto a Wild Card spot, the team isn’t playing like a club that looks like it has a deep playoff run in store. This stretch was expected to be tough, but after dropping the midweek finale to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday the Nats are a disappointing 1-4 in series this month.
That’s not an encouraging sign, especially considering several of the clubs they played—St. Louis, Atlanta and the New York Mets—are potential opponents they could see early in the postseason.
But the Nats haven’t played playoff contenders well all season. They have losing records against the Braves (8-11), Brewers (2-4), Mets (7-12), Cardinals (2-5), Arizona Diamondbacks (3-4) and Los Angeles Dodgers (3-4). In fact, the only NL contenders they’ve played well are the Cubs (4-2) and Philadelphia Phillies (9-5).
Despite how well they handled their light August schedule, the Nationals had a lot to prove in September to cement their place among the NL elite. They’ve only fallen back to the pack, making each game only all the more important with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Washington has one final series with the Miami Marlins this weekend before closing out at home against the Phillies and Cleveland Indians. With several teams breathing down their backs in the Wild Card race, both the bullpen and the offense will need to turn things around if the Nats hope to remain in playoff position.
Sean Doolittle is likely to resume his closer role soon, leaving hope that the Nats’ relievers can settle down with more defined roles. The lineup showed how dangerous it can be when it averaged 8.4 runs per game over a 16-game stretch between Aug. 14 and Sept. 1, so it’s just a matter of rediscovering that rhythm.
The team is facing an important offseason with Rendon and Stephen Strasburg potentially testing the free-agent market in November. This may be the last chance for this core to make a playoff run, but first the team must prove that it’s not still the same club that stumbled out to a 19-31 start. If it can put those demons to rest, the Nationals just might have a shot at doing some damage this postseason.